Comment on Crimea & the political spectrum

4 03 2014

This blog makes no claims toward featuring a representative sample of views on the continuing crisis in Ukraine. Such a sample would be impossible to achieve, as there are few reliable standards for determining objectivity in such an open situation.

It has recently featured voices from Ukraine’s Left, in part to make up for an absence of those voices in international coverage. That said, “Right” and “Left” are difficult to parse in today’s Ukraine. I’ve made some attempt to do that previously (e.g., here and here), but semi-authoritarian “oligarchic democracies” like that of post-Soviet Ukraine rarely allow for political positions to render themselves very transparent. Perhaps that will occur in the aftermath of the Maidan; perhaps not.

One thing that has transpired in the wake of the current Crimean crisis, however, is that virtually all of the western and central Ukrainian political spectrum appears to be united against Russian military intervention and against the loss of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The major exception are certain groups in eastern and southern Ukraine — we are talking about 7 of Ukraine’s 22 oblasts, or provinces, plus the autonomous region of Crimea — that have explicitly identified themselves with the Soviet legacy or with Greater Russia.

Up until now, some of those groups have sheltered under President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions banner (roughly 35% of the electorate in 2012, but now in a state of virtual collapse), while others have allied with the Communist Party of Ukraine (roughly 5% of the electorate). There is some evidence that Russian intervention is unifying the country, today, more successfully than the Maidan and Opposition (now government) have done — which would be an ironic result of the Russian intervention.

One comment that needs reiterating — I have seen international media commentators repeatedly mangle this matter — is that “Russian speakers” and “ethnic Russians” are far from being the same thing. The majority of Ukrainians speak Russian (as well as Ukrainian), and those who claim Russian as their native language vary across the country, with urban populations in the east and south holding highest percentages (majorities in some cities), and majorities in the rest of the country (including rural easterners) identifying Ukrainian as their native language.

Ethnic Russians, on the other hand, constitute 17% of the Ukrainian population, according to most recent census records. The primary justification offered for Russian intervention into Crimea has been an alleged — and so far unsubstantiated — threat to ethnic Russians. It is important to point out that this amounts to a policy of “ethnic-nationalist military intervention,” which could be invoked to invade almost any country in the world where there are ethnic Russians. All it would take is for those ethnic Russians to claim they are being threatened — for instance, by not being allowed to have Russian as an official language, which is the matter under debate in Ukraine. Needless to say, that is not a convincing pretext for military intervention.



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